Somebody once said that the trouble with common sense is that it is not particularly common. And you would have to agree that the antics of our various elected officials over the past few years seem to support that view.
So what a pleasure it is to see that things are starting to change on the national stage and that a small selection of our politicians are beginning to react to our gradual decline with good ideas that actually make some sense and may even be possible to deliver.
We shouldn’t get too carried away, however. There is still plenty of ridiculous rhetoric coming out of Wellington, Auckland and elsewhere about what can and should be done, much of which is either unachievable or a likely waste of time.
But first the good news.
Auckland’s new mayor seems to be declaring a war on stupidity. His decision to put some focus on the $146 million the city is spending on “transport management”, or in other words, the orange cone business, is welcome news. As most of us who drive a vehicle know well, transport management has gone way beyond the needs of health and safety and into a zone of orange cones, over-employment and excessive cost, in effect, becoming an industry in its own right.
I recently observed the formation of a new driveway: a small job requiring a 3m-long carveout of the existing kerbing and a 3m by 1m area of concrete to take the new entrance over the kerb and past the grass berm to the footpath. Two people, a light truck, a concrete mixer, some builder’s mix, cement and water. It’s the sort of thing my generation would spend a Saturday afternoon doing with dad, after the morning footy. A generous person would suggest a half a day’s work. Maximum.
However, when you add in four lanes of orange cones, running for approximately 200m on either side of the driveway, plus a few extras in an adjacent side street, plus two more vehicles and an “observer” with a vehicle at each end, you start to see why our newly elected mayor has a good point. My rough guess is that the planning, placement and removal of the cones took considerably longer, and cost more, than the driveway itself.
Mayor Brown then trumped his traffic management call with his casting vote that saw Auckland decide to depart the clutches of Local Government New Zealand or LGNZ. It’s not that long ago that LGNZ, which seems to be a place where failed local body politicians end up, was trumpeting the Government’s Three Waters policy, and acting with utter surprise when a few councils put up their hands and challenged the concept.
I heard an LGNZ spokesperson on the radio justifying their incredulity at the Auckland decision, saying the city will lose a million dollars’ worth of benefits as a result of the cancellation of its $640,000 membership. What they, and plenty of other people who hang around the public trough fail to notice, is that the said benefits are only worthwhile if you need or want them. If they are unnecessary, of poor quality or surplus to requirements, you don’t lose anything at all.
Next up was the National Party finding some sanity with the announcement of its education policy.
You don’t have to be particularly clever to realise that our education system, formerly overseen for a full five years by the man who is now Prime Minister, is failing at many levels.
And so the opposition policy to return to the basics, with a requirement to have students studying reading, writing and maths for an hour a day per subject, is the most refreshing piece of policy to come from anyone in Wellington in the past five years. Why? Because it is an obvious solution, it’s simple, easy to understand and straightforward to communicate. In other words, it’s common sense.
Of course, the current Government and their union member supporters came out in droves against the new opposition policy. Among other things, they said that kids weren’t going to enjoy learning better just because they spend an hour each day learning reading, writing and maths.
What a ridiculous statement. While I would hope that most kids go to a school they enjoy, we have to remember that the purpose of going there in the first place is to learn stuff.
Many readers will remember primary school well. We had writing classes where we were taught how to shape letters and how to put sentences together. We did times tables every day. Six sixes are 36, six sevens are 42, six eights are 48; we would chant over and over again. All the time singing the numbers out aloud, together, while the teacher pointed at the list of equations on the board.
Like many things, it was drummed into our generation and we use those skills frequently as we write clearly, and constantly surprise our younger colleagues with our ability to do simple sums in our heads, many times a day, without reaching for a calculator or a laptop.
And besides, what if our school-age students could learn valuable lessons while actually enjoying themselves. Imagine that. This week, the Herald Front Page podcast highlighted some schools that have changed the way they are teaching maths. Their kids are excited about the subject and are now doing maths in their spare time, even before school starts each day. So it can be done.
The new Minister of Education also cited affordability (which is quite humorous coming from this Government), and “certainty and stability” as reasons not to tinker with the existing education system. Certainty and stability of what? The only certainty is constant headlines about truancy and failure under the existing regime.
Remember that under then-Minister Hipkins, this is the Government that shut down charter schools and eliminated national standards. They’ve dumbed down syllabuses to hide the levels of underachievement. They’ve re-written our history and science programmes to a point that is misleading to our students and will impact their future as soon as overseas opportunities call. They’ve even added teaching guidelines about gender, identity and wellbeing to the primary school (yes, primary school) syllabus while we are failing at maths and science.
Many educators, those who see the current system and its repeated failures daily, are advocating a return to “traditional methods of teaching”. If it’s good enough for the people at the coalface, the National Party proposals are welcome.
And so the modest return to some common sense is a great start. But it’s only a start. We still have politicians making ridiculous statements and rolling out plans that we know will never get off the ground.
This week we’ve heard that they want to eliminate one-third of our car trips by 2035. Not content with slowing us down to ridiculously low speeds, including the introduction of permanent speed limits of 60km/h in some parts of State Highway One, they now want us off the roads altogether. Of course, there was no accompanying programme regarding how we would get around without our cars, for example by improving public transport initiatives or expanding the ferry service. And of course, we’ve missed the boat on light rail by 30 or more years.
On Thursday they told us that they’re going to start building the new harbour crossing in Auckland by the end of the decade. Yeah, right! They don’t have a plan yet, but they have five options, each with dots on a map. Like the cycle bridge concept before it, the options could have been drawn by a competent graphic artist during their lunch break.
They want us to believe that a Government that has failed in the execution of almost every meaningful policy in the past five or more years is suddenly going to navigate its way around our planning processes, the consulting gravy train that seems to accompany every decision, the objections of iwi and the Greens and start building such a major piece of infrastructure within seven years.
The new proposals include light rail for the North Shore! Note that there is currently no rail infrastructure on the North Shore at all. Nothing. And this comes after their non-stop talk, and zero delivery, of similar light rail proposals connecting the city centre and the airport. I don’t believe a word of it.
And isn’t it amazing that in a city surrounded by water, where some 70 per cent of us live within a kilometre of the harbour, our much-heralded new transport proposals don’t seek to utilise boats and ferries to take our people to their destinations and traffic off the roads.
In fact, it sounds like just another story, and a far-fetched one at that, designed to take our minds off what is really happening in the country.
And, just like the centralisation of our health sector, tertiary education, the supermarket review and the criticism of bank profits, it’s just another announcement without an execution plan behind it.
You see, after you have changed the names of both your country and the various government organisations offering core services after you have employed more people, increased everyone’s wages and borrowed some more money to pay for all of that, you actually have to do something.
Ideas and announcements are one thing. But common sense demands that you need to follow those with planning and execution.
A workable education policy is a fine start. Now we need one for the health system, law and order, the judiciary, secondary and tertiary education, our roads and the welfare system. Someone needs to get busy.
This article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 1st April 2023.